Posted tagged ‘working at a brewery’

Day 375

September 17, 2012

Brewmaster students sometimes get a chance to be a bit creative outside the college–but frequently you have to be flexible with regards to time–and sleep.

Earlier this week, I got a text message from my summertime brewery: would I be willing to come in early on Saturday morning to brew up a special beer of my choice on their pilot system for the upcoming Cask Days festival?


Saturday sunrise over Toronto: Hey, there’s no rush hour!

Well, yes I would. So it was that well before the sun arose, I was heading into Toronto, trying to get my brain going with a large double double. On the plus side: no rush-hour traffic on a Saturday morning.

Two weeks ago in Sensory Evaluation, Chef Olson had showed us a chipotle pepper that he had created by smoking/dehydrating a jalapeño pepper. Since then, the idea of brewing a spicy chipotle beer had been at the back of my mind. I was thinking of using a dark porter or stout as a base–smoked porters are all the rage in some places–but I didn’t want the roasted barley notes of the porter to overwhelm the smokiness of the chipotles. Hmmm. A black lager (known in Germany as ein schwarzbier) is noted for having no roasty notes. Hmmm. Okay, let’s go with the black lager.

So it was that I arrived at the brewery in the cold light of dawn clutching what was left of my large doube double and 500 grams of Black Prinz malt–a malted barley that is designed to add dark colour to a beer without adding any roasty, chocolate or coffee notes.

The brew went well, and boy, was it black. Dark black coffee black. Alas, the specific gravity was a bit lower than expected–I’ll have to check my recipe on Monday in Brewhouse Calculations. But it was black. Adding lager yeast to the wort made it, by definition, a black lager.

Next step while the lager is fermenting is to buy some jalapeño peppers. Oh, and find a smoker. And find out how to use the smoker. And smoke the jalapeños. And then doubtless buy a second batch of jalapeños. And then smoke them properly the second time around.

Day 361

September 3, 2012

Today, Friday was not only the end of the work week, but also the last day of August and the traditional last day of summer. For me,  it also marked the last day of my summer job.

We have been doing quite a bit of bottling recently, and I arrived expecting to spend my final day at the brewery with a glue gun in my hand. However, a big order of beer had not yet been picked up from the brewery, so the cooler was full of unshipped beer. With no room in the cooler, we couldn’t bottle any more beer today.  So my last day was spent doing small chores and chatting.

An undramatic end to the summer, but also a good lesson in how one problem at the end of the distribution line can affect your bottling schedule, which in turn can have an impact on fermenting and bright tank turnover, which in turn can affect your brewing schedule.

Next up is the Labour Day weekend, and then it’s back to brewmaster school.

Day 339

August 15, 2012

When I was recently given the task of coming up with a new recipe for a cask ale, I realized there would be several challenges.

The first challenge would be to think up a new flavour concept. Sometimes this means trolling grocery stores for ideas. Or sometimes asking your spouse for new ideas works just as well. (I liked my wife’s suggestion about ginger and mango. I drew the line at a strawberry and rhubarb beer. There are just some things beer shouldn’t be asked to do.)

Then I would have to decide if the idea is going to work out. Often this means adding small quantities of your chosen ingredients to a glass of beer, then asking innocent passersby in the brewery to taste it. (Generally, if they spit the beer on the floor, I move on to the next idea.)

Based on those tests, the next challenge would be to come up with some sort of recipe. How much of your ingredients will enhance the flavour of the beer, and how much will overwhelm it? Does the cask need priming sugar, or is there something in your ingredients that will supply yeast with the simple sugars it needs to trigger a secondary fermentation? Will dry-hopping enhance the new flavours, or mask them?

Of course, once I had created the new cask of ale, I would be faced with the greatest challenge of all: giving the beer a name.

There are two schools of thought on naming cask ales. The first school opts for the simple “what kind of beer is it?” So if you’ve just made a cask ale with pale ale, ginger and mango, what should appear on the bar’s blackboard is “Ginger & Mango Pale Ale”. There can be no question in the mind of the bar patron about what will be in the pint glass when it arrives.

The second school of beer naming goes for the clever, fun and creative label. My favourite is “I’ll Have What the Gentleman on the Floor Is Having”, a very strong barleywine made by McGuire’s Irish Pub in Penascola, Florida. The name is clever and humourous, and more importantly, describes what the beer is all about.

However, creative names can sometimes run into problems when they fail to describe what is inside the cask. For instance, calling your ginger and mango cask “Stuff That I Found in the Grocery Store Produce Section Pale Ale” probably fails to make the necessary connections in the bar patron’s mind.

This debate about names was running though my mind as I created a cask using shredded ginger root and chunks of ripe mango. In the end, I went with the less descriptive but more creative moniker, “Ginger Was Hotter Than Mary Ann”.

No, the mango isn’t mentioned, but I thought the allusion to the tropical setting of Gilligan’s Island would suffice.

And hey, it might also re-trigger the old Ginger vs. Mary Ann debate.

Day 337

August 7, 2012

One of the main reasons for getting a summer job at a brewery–other than earning some money–is to learn all the practical details that were not mentioned in class. One of those practical details that never came up is exactly how to stack 84 cases of beer on a pallet in seven layers that remain stable. It’s not just a matter of piling cases on top of each other–putting five or six cases directly on top of each other will result in an unstable “tower” that will lean out as you move your skid and come crashing down.

First layer of a pallet

The first layer “T” — the six cases are all aligned north-south. The next step is to place three cases on each side that are oriented east-west.

How to build a stable pallet turns out to be quite simple. For your first layer, you take six cases and build a “T”, with the long axis of the cases running north-south. You then put three cases on each side of the “T” oriented east-west. This completes the first layer of 12 cases.

For the second layer, you do exactly the same thing–but you reverse the direction of the T–that is, if the long end of your first-layer T was at the north end of the skid, then the long end of your second-layer T will be at the south end. This staggers the placement of the cases enough that you never get a case aligned directly with the case underneath it.

It’s a simple yet ingenious system that results in a very sturdy and stable skid of beer.

Actually, there is one place where the cases are stacked directly on top of each other. If you take a pencil and piece of paper and draw the first and second layers–seriously, do this, I’ll wait for you to finish–you will discover that the cases at the very centre of the skid exactly align with each other, making a central “tower”. However, because this “tower” is surrounded by all the other cases, there’s no chance for it to fall over.

I mentioned this to the brewmaster, and he told me that sometimes during bottling, he builds the central “tower” first, then builds the rest of the pallet around it. The only problem was that another employee of the brewery–let’s call him Jasper–refused to believe that building a pallet this way was the same as building a pallet layer by layer. If Jasper happened by before the pallet was complete, he would insist on taking the pallet apart and rebuilding it “properly”.

Semi-built pallet

The central tower, seven layers high, slowly disappearing as the rest of the pallet is built up around it.

Bottling, being comprised of several hours of doing the same thing over and over again, is not an exciting process. One day, assigned to put the cases of beer on a pallet, I decided to break the routine a bit by testing the Jasper story.

I first built a central tower of seven cases, then started to build the rest of the pallet around it. It was actually fairly interesting work, and I got the pallet about half-finished before Jasper came by. With a horrified look and a quick admonition about “doing the job properly”, he took apart my entire skid and and carefully rebuilt it layer by layer.

I wasn’t sure whether to be amused that the brewmaster’s story was true, or disappointed that I was back to building the pallet “properly”.

Day 328

July 30, 2012

Working at a major beer show like this weekend’s Toronto Beer Fest is a bit different than working at a small craft-beer-oriented show. The small shows are usually a collection of the local craft brewers, who mainly attract between a few dozen to a few hundred men and women in their thirties and forties.

The Toronto Beer Fest, on the other hand, drew over 20,000 people, and also featured the Big Three Canadian Branch Plants of Multinational Brewing: Molson (owned by the American Molson Coors), Labatt (owned by the Belgian giant Anheuser-Busch InBev), and Sleeman (owned by Japan’s Sapporo).

It was a great opportunity to observe what was really two festivals in one.

Steamwhistle hats

Hats made from Steam Whistle beer cartons.

The craft brewer typically rents a small booth manned by the brewery owner, the brewery owner’s sister-in-law and a couple of the sister-in-law’s good friends. (Although Lake of Bays Brewery had a very large and impressive area, with enough room for a dozen shaded tables and a “Birds of Prey” demonstration. Likewise Steam Whistle had a very large area, and amused everyone  by constructing silly hats out of beer cartons.)

The main consumers in the craft beer area were  the usual suspects, mainly middle-aged couples trying different beers and asking questions about them–although neither their questions nor our answers could be heard over the typical loud beer festival music. (However, unlike small beer shows, the music was provided by live bands rather than the show organizer’s iPod.)

The province of Quebec was also well-represented by six small breweries, who brought with them the best and most creative beers of the festival.

Over on the other side of the park, the big boys had rented large swathes of land, erected very nice hospitality areas, and employed large numbers of healthy young women dressed in attractive (but minimal) clothing. In Ontario, the legal drinking age is 19, and hundreds and hundreds of young single men aged 19-21 showed up to consume beer and ogle the healthy young women.

Over the past 18 years, the Toronto Beer Festival has gained a reputation as a drunken frat-boy party, and certainly the evidence would seem to still support this view, including the young gentleman who sat down on the grass not 10 metres from our booth and then passed out.

(In Ontario, if you want to serve alcohol to the general public, you have to pass a short provincially-mandated education course in order to get a “Smart Serve” license. One of the points hammered home during the course is that it is illegal to serve alcohol to someone who is inebriated–but that law seemed to have beeen more honoured in the breach than in the observance in certain areas of the festival.)

However, such displays of excess were the exception rather than the rule in our neighbourhbood, and mainly resulted from young men who had staggered off to the washroom and then, on the way back to their friends, had wandered off course into the craft beer area. Saisons, wheat beers, pale ales, IPAs, cask ales, stouts and porters–bewildered, the young men found themselves strangers in a strange land.

Day 325

July 28, 2012

As I have mentioned, when you work at a small brewery, you have to be able to change hats several times a day as circumstances dictate–brewing, maintenance, kegging, cleaning, answering the phone, selling beer to walk-in customers… and giving tours.

Tour groups can be as small as one or two customers–usually beer geeks–who have dropped in to buy beer and ask to see the brewhouse, or it can be a busload of people who have pre-booked a tour. Until today, I hadn’t actually given any tours at the brewery. However, the owner and the administrator were down at the Toronto Festival of Beer, and the brewmaster and assistant brewmaster were right in the middle of a brew, so it fell to me to give the tour. The group turned out to be a half-dozen very senior citizens accompanied by two young women.

Once everyone was seated in our tasting room, and had been provided with a sample of one of our beers, I introduced myself, gave a brief history of the brewery, then went into a short but humourous story of the development of beer vis a vis the cultivation of barley, a comparison of beer culture in northern Europe compared to wine culture in southern Europe, and a quick summary of beer at the dinner table from mediaeval times to the present. I then asked if there were any questions. It took me a moment to realize that blank incomprehesion was written on every face. One of the young women said, “Hold on a minute while I translate.” She started speaking in Italian. Ah, these were Italian-speaking very senior citizens. To my chagrin, the translator managed to condense everything I had said to that point into one sentence, the gist of which was: “This gentleman says good morning.”

I kept it short from that point on. My planned five-minute explanation of mashing and lautering became “We give the grain a hot bath and then rinse it.”

Explanation of the kettle boil, addition of hops, and bittering versus aroma hops: “We boil the water.”

The process of fermentation, the role of yeast, its dependence on a variety of co-factors and enzymes, and the development of green beer to mature beer: “We add yeast, which turns the water into beer.”

Filtration, carbonation and bottling: “We remove the yeast and put the beer in bottles.”

As the tour bus poulled out of the brewery parking lot, I reflected that the tour had been a lot shorter than I expected.

Day 316

July 18, 2012

The mother of all heat waves has settled over southern Ontario, the record high temperatures exacerbating the current seven-week drought. The thermometer says 37°C (99°F), and the humidity makes it feel like 45°C (113°F). That’s outside, of course. Inside the brewery, as we lean over the hot lauter tun to shovel out the heavy wet grain that was soaking in 67°C (153°F) water only minutes before, the heat feels much more intense.

To take our minds off the heat as we work, the brewmaster and I try to think of occupations that would be worse during a heat wave:

  • a roofer
  • the dude who shovels asphalt from a truck and then rakes it
  • a fire fighter in full gear
  • an air conditioner repairman fixing a rooftop unit

When we step into the air conditioned office, it feels like a refrigerator. Time to chug another bottle of Gatorade.


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